The last thing Kalenits remembered was getting stuck with needles by doctors at the base in Asadabad; the next thing he knew, he was in Germany. His mother had come home to a message telling her to get in contact with the military immediately, and when she did she was told that she'd better fly to Germany as fast as possible if she wanted to see her son alive. He was still alive when she arrived, and he eventually recovered enough to return to the United States.
O'Byrne has been quiet most of the interview. "Did anyone bring up the issue of walking at night?" he finally says. "On the way out, did anyone bring that up?"
I know why he's asking: Second Platoon left a hilltop position during the daytime once and got badly ambushed outside a town called Aliabad. A rifleman named Steiner took a round in the helmet, though he survived.
"No the lieutenant said, 'We're leaving now,'" Kalenits answers. "What are you going to say to him?" "F*** off?" O'Byrne offers.
Kalenits smiles, but it's not a thought anyone wants to pursue.
KORENGAL VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN
O'Byrne and the men of Battle Company arrived in the last week in May when the rivers were running full and the upper peaks still held their snow. Chinooks escorted by Apache helicopters rounded a massive dark mountain called the Abas Ghar and pounded into the valley and put down amid clouds of dust at the tiny landing zone. The men grabbed their gear, filed off the birds, and got mortared almost immediately. The enemy knew a new unit was coming into the valley and it was their way of saying hello; fourteen months later they'd say goodbye that way as well. The men took cover in the mechanics' bay and then shouldered their gear and climbed the hill up to their tents at the top of the base. The climb was only a hundred yards but it smoked almost everyone. Around them, the mountains flew up in every direction. The men knew that before the year was out they would probably have to walk on everything they could see.
The base was called the Korengal Outpost the KOP and was considered one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan. It was a cheerless collection of bunkers and C-wire and bee huts that stretched several hundred yards up a steep hillside toward a band of holly trees that had been shredded by gunfire. There was a plywood headquarters building and a few brick-and-mortars for the men to sleep in and small sandbag bunkers for mortar attacks. The men ate one hot meal a day under a green Army tent and showered once a week in water that had been pumped out of a local creek. Here and there PVC pipe was stuck into the ground at an angle for the men to urinate into. Since there were no women there was no need for privacy. Past the medical tent and the water tank were four open brick stalls that faced the spectacular mountains to the north. Those were known as the burn-shitters, and beneath each one was a metal drum that Afghan workers pulled out once a day so they could burn the contents with diesel fuel. Upslope from there was an Afghan National Army bunker and then a trail that climbed up to Outpost 1, a thousand feet above the KOP. The climb was so steep that the previous unit had installed fixed ropes on the bad parts. The Americans could make the climb in forty-five minutes, combat-light, and the Afghans could make it in half that.